Eric Clapton

A Return To The Crossroads
A Return To The Crossroads

In many ways, 2004 marks a return to the crossroads for Eric Clapton. With his latest disc, Me And Mr. Johnson, the guitarist pays homage to one of his principal influences – the incomparable Robert Johnson. For Clapton, Johnson is the true master of blues guitar, and completing this album was a mammoth achievement. Although Clapton recorded several of Johnson’s tunes while with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, as well as during his solo career, this time he dedicated an entire album to the musician.

The disc began as a diversion from the recording of another album containing only original material. When needing a break from his own reserve, he turned to his roots for inspiration, enjoyment, and a separate creative outlet – bringing his band along for the ride. But soon enough, what was a side project became the stronger venture. Clapton was reluctant at first, but then took it on as a personal challenge, practically daring himself to accurately learn 14 of the original 29 songs Johnson recorded during his brief career in the 1930s. For listeners, the resulting album is a conjoining of the greats – two of the most prestigious artists meet and put forward their very best. Johnson provides the material and inspiration for Clapton to deliver some of his finest work as a player.

VG was invited to a one-on-one meeting with Mr. Clapton in New York City, where he spoke enthusiastically about his experience creating Me And Mr. Johnson, as well as the variety of events coming in the months to follow. As we learned, Clapton will kick off his next tour with a weekend extravaganza dubbed the Crossroads Guitar Festival. Scheduled for June 4-6, the festival will include a selection of workshops and manufacturers’ displays, capped by a star-studded concert at Dallas’ Cotton Bowl. Although the list of participants is still being finalized, artists such as B.B. King, Brian May, Eric Johnson, Steve Vai, Jimmie Vaughan, Joe Walsh, Sonny Landreth, and ZZ Top have already confirmed.

Following the festival will be a second charity auction of more than 50 of Clapton’s personal instruments, June 24 at Christie’s in New York City. The instruments will be displayed first during the festival in Dallas, then exhibited in Los Angeles June 8-12, and finally brought to NYC for the sale, with gallery viewings June 19-24. While the June, 1999, auction of many of Clapton’s guitars drew a great deal of attention, this one seems poised to surpass it by including some of Clapton’s most prized axes, such as his beloved ’50s parts Strat, “Blackie,” and the legendary Gibson ES-335 he has had since his days with the Yardbirds. Additionally, several other artists, including Pete Townshend and Steve Vai, have donated personal instruments, adding to the excitement. Proceeds from the auction will benefit the Crossroads Centre that Clapton founded in Antigua in 1997.

So without further ado, for the first time ever, VG proudly presents an exclusive talk with the one and only Slowhand.

Vintage Guitar: What was the inspiration for recording an entire album of Robert Johnson’s music?
Eric Clapton: It’s something I had probably been intending to do all my life, but I don’t think I ever considered that I was in a position to do it until I reached this age.

I think it has something to do with maturity, self-confidence, and all kinds of things that I was fairly intimidated by – him as a performer, a writer, a player, and a singer. But I had always been influenced by him, and at the back of my list of influences, he’s kind of the core man.

When I play lead, it doesn’t really relate directly, but the essence of what I do really hinges on what I originally felt about Robert Johnson, and heard. So I kind of looked back at my career and thought, “I’ve done so many songs of his over the years, but there’s still so many left that I haven’t done. So why not take this opportunity to kind of round them all up. Round up what’s left, and even do some that have been done, like ‘Love In Vain,’ that the Stones did, and ‘Stop Breakin’ Down,’ and just dedicate an album to that.” It has always been in the back of my mind, but I never seriously considered it until now.

How did you go about selecting material?
A lot of the songs I chose came off of the first album that was released before the other stuff was discovered. So, most of my initial choices were made on the basis that they were the songs in my head from my earliest exposure to him. Things like “Kind Hearted Woman,” “Stop Breaking Down,” and “When You Got A Good Friend” were on that first album. So I went through the ones that were the obvious choices. And then when we got about five down, I started wondering if we would benefit by even thinking about trying to do something like “Hellhound On My Trail.” Because to me, some of those songs are incredibly difficult – or just appear to be undoable. And that was the chief one that I thought, well, I’ll never ever… And we actually had to work on that one. We had to listen to his version over and over again, and figure out, well… there are a couple of things here where he adds an extra bar, and we’ve got to change that. And there’s an odd note there… And we learned it as a band. We actually learned his piece as a band, and dissected it, and put it back together again.

I was really pleased in the end because when we could, we did everything live, and there are only a couple of songs where I overdubbed the vocal. I was amazed that we pulled it off.

But to begin with, the first ones we chose were “Kind Hearted Woman” and “Traveling Riverside Blues.” Then we worked our way down to the ones that I would not think about because they were too difficult. So I’d kind of put them to one side as not being possible.

So you worked your way up to those more difficult songs?
Exactly. I had to. By the time we’d done three or four, I could see it was possible. Because when we started the thing, I wasn’t sure we’d ever finish it! We did the obvious ones because they seemed to be easy and they were accessible. Now when we got to the more difficult stuff like “32-20” or “Hellhound On My Trail,” I thought that maybe it would show me that I really can’t do this, and we’ll just have to put this project on the back burner or shelve it and think about it later. But then each time we’d finish a song, I’d think, “Well, God! I didn’t think we’d be able to do this!” I got a great sense of achievement out of it.

Had you spent considerable time referring to the original Robert Johnson recordings?
Each time. You see, the real story of the album was that I was actually in the middle of another project. I had started an album of original compositions with my partner, Simon Climie, and we’d half-written a lot of the stuff. I said to him, “Let’s try a little experiment. We’ve got the band here. When it gets difficult with our own stuff, let’s kind of have a break, and go and do a version of a Robert Johnson song – just so we could clear our heads and come back to our stuff from that perspective.”

And that’s the way it started. It was really just going to be an escape clause, and it actually became the powerful venture, and the one that had the most feeling. So that means we’ve still got an album to wrap up.

Did you record any tracks that didn’t make it onto the album?
We did two versions of “Come On In My Kitchen,” and that was it. When we stopped, we had 12, and then we had 13, but I didn’t want 13 tracks, just because I’m superstitious. So we did one more.

Really, I don’t think there’s anything left that I would add. There are a couple of things that are in the same kind of mode. For instance, we did “Milkcow’s Calf Blues” and “Traveling Riverside Blues” and those represent a certain category of the things that he did. “Milkcow” is very much like “Crossroads,” and it’s also very much like “Terraplane Blues” in that it has the same motif. So I wouldn’t have considered it a good idea to do all three of those because they would probably sound just the same as one another.

So there are a lot of songs still left in his repertoire that I could do, but I chose the best representatives of each category of his, in my opinion.

And did you also choose the ones which were best suited to you as a player?

You recorded a lot of the tracks live. Was the band playing together in the same room?
Yes. The only thing was we would sometimes have the drums baffled a little bit. And if there were electrics and acoustics playing at the same time – like if Andy Fairweather-Low would be playing acoustic, or if I would be playing acoustic, then we’d be baffled, too, but we’d still be in the room. The only kind of exception to that was a harmonica, where that was going to be straight into the microphone, so we’d have him in a separate room. But it actually wasn’t overdubbed, and was performed live. We could all see each other and hear each other while we were playing. Eye contact is important.

Describe the gear used for the recording of Me And Mr. Johnson. Did you incorporate a variety of setups for different sounds?
Yes. It was basically either the two Fender Twin amps that I use. One is an original ’50s blond tweed model that’s rewired and restored. That gets used a lot. Then there’s the copy that Fender made for me. They made a copy that has all the same materials, basically. It’s a lot more robust and I can use that on the road, too. And then it was really just like a variation of guitars.

Most of it was done either on a Strat or vintage Gibsons, like a Byrdland and an L-5 with the Alnico pickups. Those are ’50s guitars. Then there were also a couple of Martins. There’s an OM-45 that I have – a pretty old one – and I used the Martin signature guitars a lot – the 000-42ECB and 000-28ECB. So that’s about it, really. There wasn’t a lot of equipment involved.

Were the Strats you played newer or older instruments?
They were new ones. There was the one I play pretty much all the time, which is the one that Crash painted. It’s a multicolored graffiti guitar. It’s just abstract. Crash is a graffiti artist from New York. He’s from the Bronx and he used to paint the trains. There were a few guys – Crash, Futura, Lee, Daze, and Haze. These guys used to paint subways, until it was outlawed and the city found a way to make the new trains with a chemical treatment so that the paint won’t stay on it. Crash is in his mid 40s and he was obviously a train painter when he was like 14. Now he’s legit and he paints on canvas, but still uses spray paint. I met him in the early ’90s and we became friends, and I asked him to paint a couple of Strats for me. I have a collection of new Strats and each one has been painted by one of these famous graffiti artists. But that’s the one I use most of the time.

Other than the Crash guitar, have you played any of the other custom-painted guitars onstage?
No, I don’t. That’s the only one.

How do you use different instruments to achieve particular tones and emotions? And how do they bring out different attributes in your playing?
It depends on what I’m trying to evoke. If I’m trying to evoke something from the ’50s, I’ll use an old Gibson. They’re quite tricky to play because I use fairly thick strings on them, so they’re louder and fatter. But it means that when I go to bend a note, I’m not going to be able to do exactly what I want. It’s pretty resistant. So I end up playing – or attempting to play – a little like T-Bone Walker would play, with that kind of sound. So it’s more of an implied bend than a full bend. I don’t really get to the note I’m trying to bend to. I kind of half get there, and then the string is too stiff. I love those Alnicos, but I have to dicker a lot with pickups so the bottom-end isn’t overwhelming, because they’re really rich bass pickups. I kind of have to let down the bottom-end, and then raise up some of the pegs in the pickup to get up to the E string and the B string.

And then I play with my fingers, too, which adds a whole other dimension to the way it’s going to sound. And in fact, on most of that album, even with the Strat, I didn’t use a pick at all. When you play live, I think there’s something about using your fingers that gives it more intimacy. It’s all an intuitive thing. If I play with a pick, it’s a stage approach. I’m going for maximum attack and volume. And I don’t really follow that thinking when I’m in the studio and when we’re playing as an ensemble. I want to get inside the mix and so I’ll use my fingers. When I’m using my fingers, I’ve got much more control about how subtle it could be.

Do you fingerpick with all five fingers on your right hand?
I use the thumb and first two.

On how many tracks did you use a pick?
A couple.

Have you ever experimented with different picks?
No, I always use the same standard heavy pick.

What are the gauges on your Strats?
They have the stage strings on them, but I’m not sure what that is. Maybe an .011 or .010…

How is the action on your guitars set? Do you prefer different types of setups on particular instruments?
It’s funny, because when I start a project or if I haven’t played for a while and I go into rehearsals, I need them quite high at the bridge end. It’s almost like I need to get my finger on the side of the string to be able to push it over, because so much about what I do with an electric guitar is about bending. On an acoustic guitar, it’s the opposite thing. I want them low to begin with, so there’s not too much effort in holding them down in a chord.

So it’s two different principles coming to play. But as I get more and more accomplished in my playing, like during the third week of rehearsal or even in the beginning of the tour, I’ll ask Lee (Dickson, Clapton’s guitar tech) to lower the strings on the electric and maybe even raise the acoustic. On the electrics, I probably want them to get lower as the tour goes on because the strength in my fingers has increased and I can push them easier.

Do you have a designated warm-up guitar that isn’t one you play onstage?
No. Normally, Lee will leave me an acoustic that I’m going to use, and the electric that I’m going to use. They’ll be in the dressing room in case I want to warm up. But I often don’t do any warm up at all. And I like doing it that way. There’s something innocent about that. I don’t want to dilute any of the performance before I actually play a show. I want that fresh impact to be in reserve for the stage.

Is that so you can give 100 percent onstage?

How have your choices in gear evolved over the years? What are the most essential characteristics you need to hear when you’re selecting an instrument?
Well, I think everything has got to have a very healthy midrange. I’m very suspicious of too much top or too much bottom. I mean, I respect and love all of the brands, but I always found it most difficult to, for instance, get on with Gretsch because I’m not quite sure what they sound like. I could never really get them quite right. And it’s important that any of the guitars I play have healthy attack. What I’ve gotten used to – and I suppose I’ve become spoiled by – is those Lace Sensor pickups that Fender kind of evolved. And the problem is, of course, that they’re really loud, and once you get used to that, it’s difficult to go back to the old single-coil. My old Strats are beautiful things, but when I plug them up, I think, where is it? I’m so used to the power of the Lace Sensor, especially the noiseless ones. They’re great pickups. So I’m kind of spoiled by that now. But I still like to go back to the Gibson Alnicos or the humbuckers to get that richness.

Do you prefer newer guitars?
I think that Fender is doing pretty well with their contemporary stuff. They’re the ones I would turn to for a contemporary guitar. But for a vintage guitar, I think Gibsons are unmatched, especially L-5s and Byrdlands.

Do you feel there may have been more consistency in the older Gibsons than in the older Fenders?
Probably, because it seemed like they were being handmade. Whether they were or not, I don’t know, but there was a certain amount of human supervision involved. But in a sense, I think the early Fenders were more like hotrods. There wasn’t a great deal of finish required. It was a different kind of animal. It was a solid guitar, and it was kind of rejecting a lot of the old guitarmaking principles.

So there were two very different choices. The vintage Gibson was more like a Stradivarius, in a sense. It had a history and there were traditions involved in its making that Fender kind of walked away from. Fender invented its own tradition.

Let’s discuss the upcoming Crossroads Guitar Auction. You already sold off a large portion of your collection in the first auction at Christie’s, and this second sale is going to include more than 50 of your personal instruments. What are some of the highlight instruments being offered?
Well, the ones I didn’t want to sell the first time around! The “A” team. There’s a selection of really good Martins – 1930s Martins and a 1927 00-45, and there are a couple things like the Unplugged guitar – the 000-42. Actually, there are two 000-42s. They’re seriously good guitars. There’s Blackie, and the red ES-335 that I’ve had ever since I was in the Yardbirds. I think that’s probably the star of the show because it’s got so much provenance. It’s been around in all aspects of my career. I’ve used that on nearly every album I’ve ever made.

Are there any instruments you would absolutely never consider selling?
I think the Crash guitar I’ve used over the last five years will be mine forever. It’s the multicolored Strat that’s probably the one that’s most recognized now. That was like the first of its kind. Crash has done another one especially for this guitar festival. I’m going to play it for the first part of the tour and then I’ll put that into the auction. He’s painted that guitar to be the spearhead guitar for the whole campaign. But I’d never part with the original.

What about amplifiers? Are there any amps you’d never part with?
My tweed Twin. I love that thing, but every time I use it, it blows up! When it’s sounding really good, that’s the time to watch out!

What will you be playing on the upcoming tour?
The new Crash guitar, and I think I’ll probably be using the Fender Twin – the copy Twin.

Will you have any pedals or effects?
I’ve kind of mucked around with that AdrenaLinn – the Roger Linn piece. I think that’s a fabulous piece of equipment. It’s basically a sequencer, but it’s got some great sounds. In the end, I’ll probably fool with it in rehearsal, then just shelf it.

The only thing I still use from time to time is a wah pedal. I have the original Crybaby – an old ’60s Crybaby. Otherwise, I kind of go without. My friend Doyle Bramhall is going to be playing in the band, and he loves all of that. He’s got so much of that stuff. It’ll be interesting to see how much of that he’s going to bring along. I just get confused if there are too many options. The simpler it is, the better it is, for me.

What advice would you give to musicians on developing their own style and sound?
Listen. Really learn to listen. The most important thing is to listen, and enjoy listening, too. But it’s not as easy as it sounds to listen without other stuff going on in your head. You know, just shut down the agendas and listen to what you hear. Listen to music all the time and enjoy it.

What do you listen to for enjoyment?
Anything. Anything. I love to listen to the blues, but I love to listen to jazz, too. I like ’60s jazz a lot. It’s where I go to relax. We’re talking Clifford Brown and people like that, like Thelonious Monk. I listen to that a lot because it is refreshing and it feeds the other kinds of music that I play in a very indirect way.

Are you more inspired by listening to musicians who aren’t guitar players?
Yes, very much. The people that I tried to emulate were actually players like King Curtis and Little Walter, who played with the same kind of attitude towards music, but their instruments were different – tenor sax and harmonica. And I was also inspired by Junior Walker. To play guitar like Junior Walker played saxophone is good fun.

Many guitarists with distinct styles learned by listening to and emulating musicians who play other types of instruments.
Yes, when they take it from another area they can pick up something that’s different. It’s not as interesting and not as illuminating when they’ve only learned from listening to other guitar players.

Talk about the Crossroads festival. How did you go about choosing the other performers?
The main body of the festival will be on the Sunday, June 6, when we’ll play at the Cotton Bowl. Friday will be the opening day, then Saturday will be workshops and there will be bands playing in the fairgrounds around the Cotton Bowl.

I just put together a wish list of everybody I wanted to see play, and to play with. I’ve asked them to come, and hopefully, they’ll all turn up. The only thing is that now I’ve got to figure out how I fit into it, and how to design it. We’ve got to sit down at some stage and design the program of who’s going to play where, and how long, and who goes on when. That’s a mammoth task!

Booker T & The MGs is scheduled as a house band, like at the Bob Dylan tribute concert you were part of in 1992.
Yes. Well, that’s what inspired a lot of this, actually, because so many people showed up for that, and there was such good will and so much fun. I want to see people play, and I don’t necessarily want it to be where everyone comes on and does two or three songs. I mean, some people need to play an hour.

Is there a theme for the musicians to follow in selecting the songs they will perform at the festival? Will the artists be playing material from your catalog, like they did at the Dylan tribute show?
No, I’ve got no guidelines on that. I want them to do what they want to do. If they want to do my songs, that’s great. But I wouldn’t take it on myself to tell anyone what to do.

I’m inviting them to be there under any auspice they choose. And it’s all to promote the Crossroads treatment center. So the idea came up to do the festival, but I hadn’t even thought about how we’re going to make money to cover the expenses, because there will be a lot of overhead. Some people will be able to come, but if they bring their musicians, you’ve got to pay them, and then there’s hotel and travel expenses, and all of that.

But I think we’ll do well, financially, with the auction, which will follow on after the festival.

It’s possible that this next auction may surpass the first in both sales and excitement.
I think so, unless everyone’s got bored with that! You never know. When I was thinking about this, I was wondering if sometimes these kind of events go and kind of hit a zenith, and people say they’re tired of this memorabilia stuff. But I thought, “Well, I’m going to do it no matter what happens because it needs to be done, and it’s something I want to do. And I actually have got to get rid of these guitars!” I do! Because I feel bad just keeping them in storage. And what would happen if I lost them when I had the fire years ago? So it’s better that they go into the hands of either other collectors or players.

Clapton “Unplugged” in ’94 and at the Teenage Cancer Trust benefit concert at the Royal Albert Hall, 2003. Photo: Ken Settle.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s June ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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